“we speak, but we rarely listen; we tell cautionary tales, but we go on making the same mistakes; we state the obvious daily, yet we never act on what we say we know”
Aurochs and Auks, by John Burnside, is a collection of four essays that ponder man’s place in the world alongside his culpability in the extinction of species. Whilst it may be depressing to consider how foolish and damaging our behaviour too often is, the undercurrent in this writing is one of hope for what still thrives among ruins, and will do so when we are gone. The author may grieve for the damage wreaked by our self-destructive habits but can also look out in wonder at the here and now.
The opening essay, Aurochs, explores story telling across the ages and how this enables ‘the most radical alternative to authorised history’. The titular animals preceded domesticated cattle and survived in lands where man had not yet decreed that places could be enclosed and owned by an elite. Farming turned animals into commodities, killed for profit rather than as needed for a hunter’s sustenance. By changing natural habitats – building on wilderness, felling forests, over fishing oceans – a long trail of extinctions followed. The author posits that many so called civilisations have lost connection with the liminal spaces our ancestors sought to connect with. What became organised religion was once a respect for unknown but occasionally encountered forces rather than a belief in a deity.
“Out in the wild, or gazing up at the stars … I do not feel diminished. On the contrary, I feel appropriate, one instance of a particular species with its own way of being in the world”
The second essay looks further at extinctions and how those who act on their concerns come to be branded negatively, often criminalised. Politicians and business leaders focus on the economy, ignoring the wide variety of damage industrialisation causes. The author reminds us that the ‘economic health of entire societies is measured according to the market value of its richest members’. The degradation of land, and the removal of freedoms afforded in wilder spaces, has left people ‘greedy, anxious, less spontaneous’.
Interesting asides include the way nature has recolonised the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, now ‘lush, diverse and swarming with animal, bird and insect life’.
“normal human activities associated with agrarian society are more destructive than the world’s worst nuclear meltdown”
There are further reminders that habitat changes result in displacement, that land should not be viewed primarily as a profitable resource.
“Land ownership inevitably leads, first to the denaturing of place and, second, to the basic conditions for social injustice. If one person has the right to enclose, develop or colonise an area, then others are not only excluded from its use, but also coerced into a position where their relationship to the land quickly becomes distorted.”
The penultimate essay, Auks, includes the always distressing account of how the Great Auk was systematically slaughtered to extinction. This, along with commercial whaling, depicts man at his worst in so many ways. Much is made in historical accounts of holocausts and genocides – man killing man. How we treat our other fellow creatures says much about moral compass – so called humanity.
The final essay tells of the author’s recent near death experience when he caught Covid-19. Once recovered he found himself more attuned to the now, more connected and appreciative. He offers special thanks to the healthcare workers who saved him, noting that a pay rise would be a better way of expressing this than a nation’s halo making.
“Nobody can say that these people are as culpable as the CEOs and politicos who keep the extinction machinery running – they, at least, have chosen to work on the side of life”
Although grateful to be alive, the author accepts his mortality and rejects the entitled assumption that ‘the whole show belongs to us’. He posits that it is this attitude that will drive man towards his own extinction, and that other species will likely blossom and flourish in the ruins we leave behind.
The writing is persuasive with many points of interest raised. Little hope is offered for change given how entrenched man’s self-entitlement remains, the comforts enjoyed that cost so dearly. Nevertheless, those who understand and value nature’s ecosystem will recognise that we are merely one species among many. We know what we are doing and continue, making a mockery of any complaints we may raise at our systematic degradation of what is our life support system.
Never didactic but clear on the issues that deserve unadulterated consideration, this is recommended reading.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.